Airbnb Releases Host Data, but Activists Say It Doesn’t Add Up

Organizers who believe the rental service is contributing to the housing crisis aren’t impressed with the numbers.
Opponents of Airbnb rally before a hearing at City Hall in New York City. (Photo: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)
Dec 3, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

Airbnb has historically kept data about its users private, but in response to the chorus of critics who say the short-term rental service is breaking housing laws, increasing rents, and displacing residents where the cost of living has skyrocketed, the start-up is changing its tune. On Tuesday, the company made anonymized data on its users in New York City publicly available for the first time, offering a peek into how often hosts rent their homes and how much money they make from the service annually.

The data shows 55 percent of Airbnb users in New York City are renting out their entire home or apartment without being present, which, when rented for less than 29 days, is illegal. (This calculation was gathered by Gothamist—the entire data set is only available by appointment at the company’s office.) The average host earns $5,110 from short-term rentals in the city annually. In spite of these numbers, Chris Lehane, Airbnb’s head of global policy and public affairs, told The New York Times, “The vast majority of the community is doing this in the right way. Our hope is that people will understand 99 percent of people on Airbnb in New York City are using it as an economic lifeline.”

The anonymized data release is part of the company’s efforts to increase its transparency so that “policymakers can make informed decisions about home sharing in their communities,” according to the company’s website.

Lehane’s claim comes in sharp contrast to the complaints of residents and activists in New York City, San Francisco, and other metropolitan areas who say the service is pushing out longtime residents, creating illegal hotels, and destabilizing affordable housing efforts in cities that are becoming less affordable. Organizers who have been pushing back against what they say is the Silicon Valley start-up’s role in the housing crisis aren’t impressed with the data dump.

“The tone deafness of these guys just amazes me,” Dale Carlson of ShareBetter San Francisco told TakePart. Carlson’s organization, which also has a New York City chapter, is a coalition of elected officials and community activists who are advocating for stricter regulations for rental companies like Airbnb.

“They use those few people who are using Airbnb as an economic lifeline as a human shield to hide their actual business practices,” Carlson continued. “That’s not where their money comes from.”

ShareBetter was a leading voice in the battle for Proposition F, a ballot initiative that would have limited Airbnb’s reach in San Francisco. It’s not the people who use Airbnb to rent a room or part of their home that concern activists like Carlson—it’s the hosts who take an entire residential unit and convert it into a full-time unregulated hotel.

“The notion that you can take 12,000 housing accommodations and convert them to tourist residencies without impacting the cost of housing is absurd,” Carlson said. “The percentage of users that’s actually using [Airbnb] to make ends meet is very small.”

ShareBetter’s New York City chapter had similar concerns about the data, noting in a statement on Tuesday that “most of their revenue comes from illegal home rentals that take precious housing units away from regular everyday New Yorkers.”

In November, San Francisco’s Proposition F failed after Airbnb and fellow opponents spent $8 million opposing the campaign, according to The Guardian. But for Carlson and his cohort, the fight is far from over. The group is working with the city’s Board of Supervisors to push for stricter regulations on rental services, and if that fails, they plan to introduce a new ballot initiative.

“When the company gets around to going public, they’ll have to disclose data that will be signed off on by an independent auditor, and they won’t get away with these phony data dumps,” Carlson said. “I think you’re going to find out that the emperor has no clothes.”